As such, Compliance is a grueling experience, a film I'd easily classify as a horror film even though it's free from any specifically identifiable monster. Sure, there's the guy on the phone, warping the perception of reality, but it still comes down to these people - a fast food manager, three of her employees, and her fiancee - and the decisions they make (and, as tellingly, the ones they don't) when given specific instructions. It goes beyond the question of knowledge of police procedure (and this film is, if nothing else, an object lesson on the importance of teaching civics) to basic questions of human dignity. When we think back on those times in which human beings were regularly, and quite legally, subjected to the kind of treatment (and worse) that Compliance deals in, it's easy to imagine those who stood up, said "no," and gladly sacrificed societal freedom for moral. But the truth is that most people went along with this treatment, and some aspect of our interior retains that impulse to comply with authority, even a perceived one.
Zobel recognizes this, and rather than mock his characters for their weakness, he chooses instead to sympathize with (though not excuse) them, underscoring once again that this is an innate aspect of humanity wrought large. As the manager, Ann Dowd gives what must be regarded as among the finest performances of the year, a ball of "yes sir" defaults, assumed authority, and a general mode of operation that demands she push through any unpleasantness without dwelling too thoroughly on the consequences. Early on, that means going around her regional manager's back to hide an oversight. Later, it will mean leaving her fiancee in a room, alone, with a naked girl. Later still, well...Dowd navigates her character's tricky sense of morality and duty with an assumed righteousness that is neither off-putting nor dishonest; it's the position we all take, in the moment if not in the aftermath.
She has a rapport with Becky (Dreama Walker), the subject of all the various misdeeds, that is very familiar to anyone who's worked these sort of low-wage, no-commitment jobs - friendly, yet assertive, eager to fit in with the mostly younger crowd she oversees, as long as she remains the one in control of the conversation. Becky, conversely, protests even innocent questions out of habit without ever putting up honest resistance; she's vocal, but not commanding. Walker is put in an almost impossible position as an actress, but she handles all the fear, uncertainty, and humiliation very well, giving into the discomfort in a way that almost implicates the audience for watching.
Along with cinematographer Adam Stone (the man behind the camera for Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter) and first-time composer Heather McIntosh, Zobel creates a terrible atmosphere of dread in which the question of things taking a turn for the worse is never asked, for the quicksand-like atmosphere demands it. At a certain point, it becomes clear nobody here is going to stand up and say, "no, that's going too far," for, once it's established that these people will come wade in the shallow end, there's no question that they'll eventually be dunking one another. It's a fascinating, tightly-controlled experience with some very messy people. Enormously complex in its abject simplicity.
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